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Only a year passed between the events of Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, but plenty has changed since we last saw these characters. Not for them, exactly, but for their creators Pixar. Back in 2003 with the release of Finding Nemo, Pixar was at the height of their game, four deep in one of the greatest success run in film history, with many believing Nemo was the height of their output thus far. Thirteen years later, Pixar’s run has been marred by less than stellar films and a handful of unnecessary sequels. After films like Cars 2 and Monsters University, Pixar going back to the well is less an exciting revisiting of old pals, but rather a dare for their audience to rekindle their earlier passion.

Last year, Pixar gave us both their highs and their lows. Inside Out brought back the pure joy and wonder that only this company can bring with animation, a perfect combination of wit, humor, and heartbreak. They also ended the year with The Good Dinosaur, a visually stunning film that felt like a retread of prior ideas and uncharacteristically generic storytelling that was only hurt by having to follow one of Pixar’s best.

Finding Dory – Pixar’s first sequel in three years – fits right smack in the middle of Pixar’s highs and lows. Finding Dory has moments that are just as funny, strange, and beautifully powerful as almost anything Pixar has done. Yet it also at times largely combines elements we’ve seen before, not just in Finding Nemo, but also the Toy Story franchise especially. Even though there is this dichotomy, Finding Dory is one of the few Pixar sequels that completely earns its reason for existing and makes the series a better, fuller experience.

A year after Finding Nemo, Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are back at home, safe in their anemone. But after an adventure that spanned the Pacific Ocean, they have come back with Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), whose forgetfulness and general confusion keep them up at nights and has become a constant state of irritation for this makeshift family. Even though Dory is unable to keep track of short term memories, she starts to remember her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) and decides to go on another adventure to find them. Since her lack of focus is what caused her to run into Nemo and Marlin – as we see through incredibly effective flashbacks of Dory as a child and leading up to the events of Nemo – the two fish decide to help Dory on her quest.

Smartly, Finding Dory isn’t another adventure through the ocean, instead getting the journey out of the way and quickly getting these characters to the last known location of Dory’s parents, a marine life institute and museum in California. While there, Dory gets help from Hank (Ed O’Neill), an octopus who is missing one leg and is afraid to get back into the ocean. There’s also Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), the near-sighted whale that once taught Dory how to speak her language, and Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga too afraid to use his sonar.

In Finding Nemo, Dory was often a point of annoyance. But Finding Dory makes its audience sympathize with Dory through her flashbacks, as we see her parents trying to help her navigate the world when she can’t remember what happened moments ago. Because of this, Finding Dory is a film about parents with children that have special needs, showing how weaknesses can actually be strengths. These moments with Dory and her parents – especially one phenomenally beautiful moment involving shells late in the film – bring an emotional heft to Dory that was lacking in Nemo, turning a character that could be very obnoxious into a strong message that holds together wonderfully.

Even with a relatively sad story bolstering Dory, this also ends up being one of the most laugh-out-loud films in Pixar’s canon. Dory’s humor is quite often very strange, such as with a bird named Becky that helps Nemo and Marlin out, or how two hilarious seals (actors Idris Elba and Dominic West from The Wire) play off each other, or just the inclusion of Sigourney Weaver in a role that could potentially tie this film into WALL-E. By balancing heartfelt story and big laughs, Finding Dory reminds us of Pixar’s strengths.

This combination is largely thanks to the return of Andrew Stanton, who directed the original Nemo and hasn’t directed a Pixar film since 2008’s WALL-E. This time working with co-director Angus MacLane, who has worked as an animator for Pixar since their short Geri’s Game and directed the Burn-E short, these two know how to get the best out of Pixar.

Yet Finding Dory does tread very close to ideas we’ve seen in prior Pixar films. Finding Dory doesn’t seem as close to its predecessor Nemo as it does the Toy Story films. As Dory and Hank make their way through the aquarium, they are forced to hide from the humans that surround them in ways that feel like the orange cone trek across the street, or the hijacking of a Pizza Planet truck. Even a moment where Hank and Dory accidentally get in a tank where kids are allowed to touch the fish seems very reminiscent of Toy Story 3’s terrifying arrival of preschool children.

Much like how Finding Nemo didn’t really have much of an idea of what to with Dory rather than make her a fun sidekick, Finding Dory doesn’t really know what to do with Nemo and Marlin once they get to the aquarium. The two mostly chase after Dory, whom is also on her own wild goose chase for her parents.

Finding Dory might share much of its DNA with previous Pixar films, but it’s one of the few Pixar sequels that feels deserving of its existence. Finding Dory is a far funnier, far more emotional film than Nemo – albeit not as well constructed or original – that adds a well deserved amount of depth to one of Pixar’s most popular characters. Even though Dory revisits ideas and characters, Pixar is still able to create a smart, hilarious story that feels unique and keeps swimming back to the depth of its success.

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